Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Aethelbald, the king of Wessex who married his step-mother

Scandals in high places are nothing new. This is King Aethelbald of Wessex (western and southern England), who shocked 9th century society by marrying his step-mother.

Aethelbald was the eldest of the four sons of King Aethelwulf (reigned 839 to 858) – the youngest son is much better known to history because he would later become King Alfred the Great. Aethelwulf’s first wife, and the mother of all his sons, was Osburh. However, when Osburh died (probably in the year 854) Aethelwulf took a new bride, a European princess named Judith.

Aethelwulf died in 858, to be succeeded by Aethelbald, who promptly married Judith.

Alfred’s friend and later biographer, Asser, wrote that this was ‘contrary to God’s prohibition and Christian dignity’. Given that Aethelbald had also mounted a revolt against his father two years previously, this act of incest (as it would have been interpreted at the time) did not go down well with the people of Wessex, and there was general relief when he died only two years later.

The throne then passed down the line of the other brothers, ending with Alfred who brought a much-needed restoration of power and dignity to the affairs of England’s most powerful kingdom.

© John Welford